5 – He Was an Outstanding Military Commander
Even though he seemingly operated as ‘commander for hire’ under the patronage of Clodius, it shouldn’t detract from his excellent record. While he lacked the leadership and utter brilliance of Caesar (like most generals in history), he was a fine general in his own right. Antony’s military career began in Syria when he was 22 years of age, and he was quickly elevated to the position of cavalry commander in Judaea and Egypt. Antony served in this role with distinction under the leadership of Aulus Gabinus from 57-54 BC. He became a staff member under Caesar during his Gallic campaign and impressed his leader enough to receive the title Tribune of the People in 52 BC. Unfortunately, he wasn’t as good a politician or administrator as he was a soldier, so he never excelled in any non-military role.
Antony stood by Caesar and vetoed the Senate’s attempt to strip his leader of command in 49 BC. He sided with Caesar during the Civil War and played a key role in the decisive battle of Pharsalus where he commanded the left-wing. He received the title co-consul in 44 BC, and when Caesar died in the same year, Antony took control of his assets. He had mixed success when fighting Octavian initially but ultimately joined him and Lepidus in the Second Triumvirate. Antony won a series of victories against the men who murdered Caesar culminating in the decisive Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.
The latter part of his military career was less successful. A failed campaign in Parthia was followed by ultimate defeat to Octavian at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. His apparent love for Cleopatra caused Antony to flee after her when the Egyptian left the battle early. It was a terrible move, out of character for such a brave warrior, and sealed his fate.
Even Plutarch praised Antony’s military skills. Perhaps his greatest strength was his ability to react positively to adversity. Whenever he was in dire straits and backed into a corner, he found a way to get out of trouble. When his army was ravaged with famine, when he didn’t have any allies and when the going got tough, Antony was one of Rome’s best generals. His troops adored him because he treated them as colleagues and friends rather than merely nameless soldiers. The Roman people liked him because he showcased many leadership traits. This makes his actions at Actium all the more galling.
His greatest weakness was his complete love of luxury. Plutarch called this a moral failure; when Antony was winning, he was lured by the trappings that accompanied it. Bizarrely, when everything went wrong, he was a brilliant leader. When things were going well, he became complacent and soft. Maybe the luxury he enjoyed in Egypt eroded his abilities, so when things got tough at Actium, he fled. Sadly, he is remembered more for this and his failures than the many successes he enjoyed in his career.